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The importance of being earnest

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Themes to discuss with the students

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The importance of being earnest

  1. 1. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST THEMES Lies and DeceitLies and Deceit MarriageMarriage Respect and ReputationRespect and Reputation Society and ClassSociety and Class GenderGender Versions of Reality: RomanceVersions of Reality: Romance LoveLove Foolishness and FollyFoolishness and Folly
  2. 2. LIES AND DECEIT The most prevalent reason characters in The Importance of Being Earnestlie is to get out of social or familial duties and do something more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, few characters hold honesty in high regard. However, we see how hard it is for them to set things straight once they’ve lied about them. As the situation gets increasingly complicated, characters must weave more complex lies to get out of the tangles of their previous lies. Eventually they reach the point where lies will no longer work and the truth is revealed. Perhaps the most striking thing is that none of the characters ever shows true remorse or guilt about lying.
  3. 3. MARRIAGE The big question The Importance of Being Earnest raises is whether marriage is pleasurable... or a restrictive social duty. In general, the older generation thinks of marriage as a means to an end, a way of maintaining or bettering your social position. If you want to get married, you submit to an interrogation: "State your name, rank, and serial number." The number that matters in this case, however, is your income; you'd better have bank. You also need to have an acceptable title, along with the parents to prove it. The hot-blooded youngsters think they are interested in love. One of the huge ironies in the play—and what makes it a satire of Victorian society—is that, in the end, nobody really breaks the rules. They color within the lines, and marry exactly the type of person their society expects them to.
  4. 4. RESPECT AND REPUTATION In The Importance of Being Earnest, the upper classes  care about being respectable—so much so that they do a lot  of lying about it. In general, Victorian upper-class society holds slightly  different expectations of men and women. Men need to be  upstanding, rich, and from a good family. Women need to be  upstanding,  rich,  from  a  good  family,  and  chaste.  Any  deviation from the rules (being born poor, or being found in  a handbag, in Jack's case) may prevent a young person from  making a good match, and continuing his noble line.
  5. 5. SOCIETY AND CLASS The Importance of Being Earnest reveals the differences  between the behavior of the upper class and that of the lower  class. Members of the upper class display a great deal of pride  and pretense, feeling that they are inherently entitled to their  wealth and higher social position. They are so preoccupied with  maintaining the status quo that they quickly squash any signs of  rebellion. In this play, Wilde satirizes the arrogance and hypocrisy  of  the  aristocracy.  The  lower  classes  in Earnest are  less  pretentious  and  more  humble...  but  equally  good  at  making  jokes.
  6. 6. GENDER In The Importance of Being Earnest,  the  question  of  each gender’s role in society often centers on power. In the  Victorian world of this play, men have greater influence than  women.  Men  make  the  political  decisions  for  their  families,  while  women  work  around  the  house,  quietly  taking  care  of  the children. Men are valued for their intellect and judgment, while  women  are  attractive  to  men  for  their  beauty  and  chastity.  However,  Wilde  raises  interesting  questions  about  gender  roles  in The Importance of Being Earnest by  putting  women  (like Lady Bracknell) in positions of power and by showing that  men (i.e., Jack and Algernon) can be irresponsible and bad at  decision-making.
  7. 7. VESIONS OF REALITY: ROMANCE In The Importance of Being Earnest,  pampered  young  women  have  a  skewed  sense  of  reality,  inspired  by  romantic  novels. When real life gets too boring, these women decide to  take matters into their own hands by recording their fantasies in  diaries. Potential  lovers  enter  the  picture  and  provide  an  opportunity  to  act  out  the  fantasies,  but  the  women’s  expectations  of  courtship  often  prove  too  whimsical  and  idealistic  for  reality.  There’s  no  tragic  disillusionment  here,  though. Just marriages, and lots of them. Earnest is a comedy,  after all.
  8. 8. LOVE In The Importance of Being Earnest, it is often hard to  distinguish  Wilde’s  notion  of romance  from that of  real love.  Readers  must  settle  for  a  decidedly  un-modern  definition  of  love.  For  example,  in Earnest physical  beauty—both  female  and male—can initiate and sustain a love affair. Forgiveness  is  an  ingredient  of  love  as  well.  Both  women forgive the men for their earlier deceptions when they  discover the good intentions behind their crimes. It seems that  the  definition  of  love  in  this  play  is  not  so  much  an  unconditional and self-sacrificing love, but a general attitude of  good intentions, admiration, and honest affection.
  9. 9. FOOLISHNESS AND FOLLY In The Importance of Being Earnest,  the  characters’  foolishness is the core of the comedy. Often, we don’t know  whether  a  character  says  something  contradictory  or  random in a serious way, or if the character is just joking.  This  ambiguity  in  tone  makes  readers  both  slightly  uncomfortable and prone to laughter. Wilde  shows  his  characters’  folly  in  a  number  of  ways: spinning something that is out of human control as if it  were  a  simple  matter  of  mundane  choice,  inverting  aphorisms so that they mean the opposite of what common  sense dictates, and simply juxtaposing random things so that  they create an absurd situation.
  10. 10. FOOLISHNESS AND FOLLY In The Importance of Being Earnest,  the  characters’  foolishness is the core of the comedy. Often, we don’t know  whether  a  character  says  something  contradictory  or  random in a serious way, or if the character is just joking.  This  ambiguity  in  tone  makes  readers  both  slightly  uncomfortable and prone to laughter. Wilde  shows  his  characters’  folly  in  a  number  of  ways: spinning something that is out of human control as if it  were  a  simple  matter  of  mundane  choice,  inverting  aphorisms so that they mean the opposite of what common  sense dictates, and simply juxtaposing random things so that  they create an absurd situation.

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